by Louis Devine
“When I go to a party and people ask me what I do, and I tell them I’m a professor, their eyes glaze over,” jokes Daniel Dennett. “When I go to an academic cocktail party and there are all the professors around, they ask me what field I’m in and I say, ‘philosophy’, their eyes glaze over.”
Anyone insouciant enough about his or her own employability to major in philosophy will know Dennett’s joke all too well. Caught between explaining what philosophy actually is to the general public, and justifying its validity to fellow academics, it’s easy for philosophy students to internalise the view that the real world has no use for them.
But do philosophers share some of the blame for pushing philosophy into the realm of intellectual obscurity? One may lament the lack of everyday people interested in philosophy as a tool for solving contemporary problems, but when an entire university tutorial is spent discussing whether or not tables (yes, tables) really exist, one must ask: can we blame them?
Perceptions of philosophy as a purely self-indulgent intellectual exercise must be challenged. But in order to see its benefits extend beyond the ivory tower, we must actually begin discussing philosophy off university campus. Yet currently, the way it is taught at university does not equip students of philosophy to do so.
In two years of studying philosophy at the tertiary level, never once have I heard a lecturer or tutor relate the musings of an old, white male philosopher to tangible, contemporary problems. Yet the ground to do so remains more fertile than ever.
Imagine how much more savoury our political discourse would be, if instead of two public figures screeching at each other on Q&A about immigration and multiculturalism, academics deigned to descend from the clock towers of sandstone universities and discussed the philosophical underpinnings of cultural and moral relativism. If this were so, rather than further entrenching political polarization, we might actually learn something about opposing world-views, and perhaps even better understand our own.
If university professors could contextualise esoteric debates about the nature of consciousness by discussing the real world dilemmas of artificial intelligence, philosophy students might not view themselves as unemployable.
And for those convinced that the political earthquakes of 2016 have precipitated the decline of western civilisation, we might take solace in Hegel’s view of history; whereby social progress is not linear, but instead a continual and violent lurching between polar extremes before equilibrium is reached. In Hegel’s dialectic, the era of Trump and Brexit is merely the expected antithesis to the gains of progressives. Soon, we shall find a synthesis.
Modern technology, globalisation and social media have meant that there is now more information readily available to more people than ever before, and yet the words of Heidegger have never seemed more prescient: the more we learn about the material world, the less we know about ourselves. Pointing perhaps to the most precious lesson we can learn from philosophy – intellectual humility. In the era of social media echo chambers and fake news, we should strive to remember the Socratic truism: all I know is that I know nothing.
Louis Devine is a second year Arts student at Melbourne University, majoring in politics and philosophy. Despite preaching about epistemological integrity, he’s quietly confident that’s he’s right about everything.